More youths are being trained as mental health leaders. It's changing the conversation.

Natalie Eilbert, USA TODAY NETWORK - Wisconsin
February 22, 2024

If you or someone you know is dealing with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or text "Hopeline" to the National Crisis Text Line at 741-741.

Kennedy Baumgart, a senior at De Pere High School, couldn't shake the feeling of guilt after she learned about her classmate's suicide last January.

She's been part of Hope Squad, an international peer-led suicide prevention program, since seventh grade and always knew what to say to her struggling peers faced with crises. She'd stood in front of her entire school at a varsity football game during her sophomore year to talk about Hope Squad and the importance of reaching out. Baumgart wanted everyone to know they could come to her in moments of pain.

But this was different. She was beating herself up for her peer's death, even as she knew, at least theoretically, she wasn't being fair to herself. Of course it wasn't her fault, of course there was nothing she could have done differently. And yet, the feeling persisted.

Her Hope Squad peers felt it, too.

"It was a weird dynamic. There was a shared feeling of guilt," said Baumgart, 18. "We were supposed to be those people that should have been an outlet, somebody others felt comfortable with, hopefully. It's a very strong word, but we felt like we failed."

Before Baumgart and her fellow Hope Squad peers learned how to lift each other up, they had to untangle a complicated web of their own internal feelings. So they talked. They all used the same words: shame, guilt, failure. They could validate what they were feeling and still grieve the loss of their peer.

Only then could they extend that support to the larger student body. Everyone at De Pere High School was reeling from the death. The larger student body could finally see the purpose and importance of the group known as Hope Squad, said Jessica Rolain, a De Pere senior who has been a Hope Squad leader for five years.

"Since that (suicide) happened, more people have been open to our message, for sure," said Rolain, 18. "Before, what our group stood for was way more of a joke to some people, because they didn't see the real application. They thought this was just an issue affecting other people."

Youths are more likely to turn to peers when they're in trouble

Hope Squad is one of many peer-led suicide prevention groups that give young people the tools to respond to classmates in crisis. That's an important population to train, considering youths are far more likely to turn to their peers than they are to an adult when they're in trouble, according to the Wisconsin Office of Children's Mental Health.

And youth suicide is a growing problem, one that parents and educators say requires open and honest conversations with young people — even, and especially, if the topic is hard to broach.

"Reaching out to people is so beneficial," Rolain said. "We should all be having a better conversation with each other, especially around the topic of suicide."

As part of our Kids in Crisis series, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin spoke to middle school and high school students who participate in their school's peer-centered suicide prevention groups Hope Squad and Sources of Strength.

For them, anxiety and depression loom large, fueled by academic pressures, a need to please others and not being able to connect with each other on a deeper level.

"It's such a hard thing to talk about, and it's such a big thing to talk about," said Marren VanRemortel, a junior at De Pere with the Hope Squad. "We need people sprinkled around our school from Hope Squad to be able and be trained. It's such a necessity to have, and it's so hard to talk about."

Talking about mental health and suicide prevention can drastically alter school climates

Jadon Chiyangwa, 14, back left, Tate Savides,14, front left, Addison Kiekhaefer, 13, back right, and Emma Mineau, 13, front right, discuss their roles as Sources of Strength leaders at James Madison Middle School on Feb. 5 in Appleton. They help their peers open up about struggles in sports, academics, relationships and more.

Suicide is now the second leading cause of death among 10- to 14-year-olds in Wisconsin, according to Amy Marsman, senior research analyst for the state Office of Children's Mental Health. Nearly half — 48% — of all LGBTQ+ youths seriously considered suicide, which is both higher than the national average and an increasing problem in Wisconsin.

More than a third of young adults ages 18 to 25 experienced a mental illness in 2023 — a sizable increase from 26% of the same age group five years ago.

At the same time, youths continue to struggle with social disconnect wrought by the pandemic, based on the latest report from the Office of Children's Mental Health. Just 61% of students feel connected to school, a finding that has dropped 10 percentage points from pre-pandemic numbers.

Fewer students, at 67%, say they have a trusted adult in their lives, which raises concerns because youth relationships with trusted adults tend to improve mental health outcomes. Before the pandemic, 72% of students could say they had a trusted adult in their lives.

The epidemic of youth suicide isn't going away. Candor is needed more than ever.

To that end, studies demonstrate that peer-to-peer suicide prevention programs like Hope Squad and Sources of Strength reduce stigma, which then removes a barrier for students experiencing crisis.

A study of suicide hotline usage by adolescents receiving psychiatric interventions found that a third of all participants expressed concern of what others might think of them if they called a suicide crisis hotline. Much of those fears dissipated if their peers encouraged them to call crisis hotlines, the study said.

Students in Hope Squad schools experienced significantly less suicide-related stigma and more positive attitudes than in schools without Hope Squad. Similarly, Sources of Strength programming has been shown to improve school norms and beliefs about suicide, connectedness to adults and school engagement.

Those lessons are being imparted on younger and younger people, like Jadon Chiyangwa, an eighth-grader at James Madison Middle School in Appleton. Chiyangwa, 14, was one of the 60 students nominated this past school year to be a Sources of Strength leader. It's the first year James Madison Middle School is using the suicide prevention club.

Like the high school students at De Pere High School, Chiyangwa and his peers have learned that mental health is "not as simple as people think."

Tate Savides, an eighth-grader at James Madison with Sources of Strength, agreed.

"There's so many different parts in itself that goes into it," Savides, 14, said. "I feel like a lot of people might think it's one big thing, but there are so many pieces to it."

Chiyangwa, Savides and other Sources of Strength student leaders have been learning about the eight mental health tenets of the Sources of Strength wheel: family support, positive friends, mentors, healthy activities, generosity, spirituality, physical health and mental health.

Each of these categories teaches resilience so that young people can lean on those factors when they're struggling. When USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin spoke with James Madison Middle School students on Feb. 5, the Sources of Strength leaders were planning for an entire month of programming for their Sources of Strength-themed month.

Over the next eight school days, Sources of Strength leaders taught a new category to every homeroom, helping their classmates generate reasons why each element contributes to mental wellness.

Chiyangwa said positive friends as a category has really resonated for him and he's looking forward to talking about it with his peers.

"Positive friends help me stay positive. What I think can affect people the most in middle school is negative friends," Chiyangwa said. "Because I surround myself with positive people, it helps me stay healthier, mentally."

That's been the experience for seventh-grader Addison Kiekhaefer, too. One of her best friends, Emma Mineau, is also a Sources of Strength leader. The club has helped deepen their friendship and empowered them to talk about topics that used to make Kiekhaefer nervous.

Social media comes up a lot for them and their classmates.

"They tell you how to look, and it's very negative on your brain," Mineau, 13, said, gesturing at her phone on the table. "Like, you get sucked in and want to be perfect like everybody else."

On the discussion of social media, Savides nodded. For him, the striving for perfection — in his case, doing well in school, impressing his parents and grandparents — can become all-encompassing.

"Like, trying your hardest all the time. If you were to try super hard on a test but you were still to fail, that can be really mentally taxing," Savides said.

"People put a lot of pressure and expectations on themselves," Chiyangwa added. "And they can just bring themselves down by thinking all that of themselves."

Sources of Strength has been "eye-opening" for Mineau, who's in seventh grade.

Mineau was able to put her leadership to test with a friend earlier this year. Mineau helped her friend articulate what led to her poor mental state, enough that she could both be there for her and recommend a trusted adult for her to reach out to.

"She didn't know how to explain what she was feeling, so she needed a lot of help doing that," Mineau said. "I was trying my best to support her, and I helped her figure out what she was trying to say."

With Sources of Strength, there's a 'ripple effect' across this Appleton middle school

Kyle Balda, who has been the school counselor at James Madison Middle School for 11 years, has been observing the "phenomenal success" of having Sources of Strength in the Appleton high schools. When students move from the middle school to the high school, high school staff ask Balda to recommend student leaders. He's been able to talk with high school staff over the years to learn about the program's benefits.

Embarking on the program with younger students, Balda said, offers an opportunity to teach resilience at a time when students are experiencing a lot of chaos in their developing bodies and brains. In these early teenage years, adolescents encounter the double-wallop of puberty and complex, sometimes tumultuous social lives.

Establishing Sources of Strength is one of the many ways Balda has broadened conversations around mental health. In the last three years, he's incorporated wellness screenings for all seventh-graders, and middle school students have the option to participate in support groups based on a category they may be struggling in, whether that's family concerns, anxiety or self-esteem. There's even a support group for students who are struggling with perfectionism called "Superstars."

Sources of Strength is just one more tool.

"We nominated 60 kids in our building to be Sources of Strength peer leaders, and the idea was to create a web," Balda said. "And the web really touched every corner of our school to make sure every student and every population was represented."

Representation, Balda said, is critical, because it helps young people see "like-minded" leaders and allows for students to more easily open up when they're struggling. That goes a long way, as does the fact that the students selected have what Balda describes as that "it" factor: "They're influencers. They're people who are looked up to, whether they want to be looked up to or not sometimes."

At James Madison Middle School in Appleton, February is Sources of Strength month. Educators nominated 60 student leaders to help guide conversations around mental health, with a focus on eight categories of strength, from positive friendships to mentors. They met Feb. 5 to prepare for eight days of leading classroom discussions in various homerooms around the school.

Balda said the most powerful part of the program has been allowing students to realize they're leaders. He's been able to watch students blossom. Those are the students who effect the most change, Balda said, because there's buy-in.

The students want to do better, Balda said; they want to instill goodness in their school. That, he said, has a ripple effect.

"And that ripple effect truly does start to reverberate into other areas, other corners of our school that maybe we haven't seen or helped before," Balda said.

Learning when to report might be awkward, but for the Hope Squad, it's worth it

De Pere High School senior Kennedy Baumgart (right) talks about Hope Squad at De Pere High School. The program, now in its fourth year in the school district, aims to raise suicide awareness and give students the tools to help each other and seek help when needed.

One of the foundations of Hope Squad is the QPR training students get. QPR stands for question, persuade, refer, a nationally recognized prevention measure that pushes those trained to ask hard, direct questions of those who might be in crisis.

Learning and reiterating the lessons of QPR has helped Baumgart understand just how differently people communicate. Some people talk in codes about what they're going through, and others cloak their struggles in humor, Baumgart said.

"When you're talking to different people, you need a different lens on how you're perceiving that conversation," Baumgart said. "I think those implicit and explicit cues are really important so that you know when to report — especially with things like jokes. We've learned about the importance of identifying hidden meanings."

De Pere High School junior Ella Krebsbach talks about her involvement with Hope Squad at De Pere High School. The program, now in its fourth year in the school district, aims to raise suicide awareness and give students the tools to help each other and seek help when needed.

Ella Krebsbach, a junior at De Pere with the Hope Squad, had to make an uncomfortable decision when she learned her friend was in crisis. Her friend had been struggling with too much on her plate.

Eventually, Krebsbach, 17, understood that what her friend was feeling went beyond how she could support her. She made the awkward but smart choice to tell her friend's parents.

"It was pretty hard, for sure. She's one of my best friends, so I obviously know her very well. I didn't want her to be upset with me, but one of the things we talk about at Hope Squad is we'd rather someone be upset with you for a little bit than gone," Krebsbach said.

That piece of insight has been an important reminder in the aftermath of their peer's suicide last January. Krebsbach didn't want to leave anything up to chance with her friend and, in turn, her friend was able to get the support she needed.

The Hope Squad has been taking other proactive measures since their peer's suicide.

They invited Philip Timm, the father of the student who died by suicide, to speak with them about prevention. Carson Molle, the Seymour teen who survived a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head when he was 14, paid a visit to their school to talk about his journey of survival and the importance of reaching out. And they led the community in the 2023 Be the Light walk in Green Bay, a walk to prevent suicide and reduce stigma.

Sometimes, as in Molle's case, the decision to die by suicide is quick, which is why Krebsbach said it's important to signal to others when something in a peer feels troublingly off-kilter.

Shala Rahman, a senior at De Pere with the Hope Squad, agrees. Molle's attempt at suicide is something he wears in the scars on his face, noted Rahman, 17.

"That's a really big part of his story, but also if everybody's struggles were that visible, then I think the world would be a kinder place," Rahman said.